In the ancient world, women were usually considered on a level below men. In ancient Greece, women were stereotyped as having strong emotions and weak minds, in need of a man to keep them from doing damage to themselves. Roman women had no control over their finances and required a man to supervise them. Women in ancient China were not even considered worthy of education or literacy and were simply called “daughter one” and “daughter two.” While most ancient cultures treated their women unfairly, Egypt did not. Ancient Egyptian women had equal rights and similar opportunities to the men in their culture.
Throughout Egypt’s rich history, women played important roles in many aspects of ancient Egyptian civilization. Ancient Egyptian women had identical legal rights to the men in their culture. Women had the legal right to sell and dispose of property (land, servants, livestock, slaves, money, etc.), enter contracts, sue and be sued in civil courts, serve as witnesses, and be part of juries. Noble women often controlled their estates and helped their husbands with their professions. There were even marriage contracts, similar to prenuptial agreements, to protect men’s and women’s property in the marriage. Women also inherited equally; male and female children evenly inherited their parents’ property, and wives controlled a third of their husbands’ estates after their deaths. Women could also take charge of business affairs. Despite the fact that social norms often held back women from acting in total equality to their male counterparts, women were still treated equally under the law.
Women were not only empowered in the courts, but also had more rights in the religious arena. When women acted as priestesses, they usually worked in temples dedicated to goddesses, while men worked in temples for the gods. The title of priestess was commonly held by women until the New Kingdom, when priesthood became a full-time position. After priesthood became a difficult option, women who wanted to get involved in the temples became singers or musicians. Shemayet, the title for musician, was the second-most popular title for women. Women could also participate in entertainment troupes, or kheneru. Women from all social classes, from the elite non-royal to peasant classes, could serve in temples in some form.
In addition to equality in legal and religious fields, women could also rise to the top in rulership positions. While kingship was normally held by men, women also became pharaohs on occasion. Many female pharaohs are not well-known, mostly because there is no definitive evidence that they were indeed pharaohs. One such woman, Merneith, is buried with the full honors of a pharaoh, but there are no documents verifying that she reigned as a pharaoh as opposed to a regent or queen. However, there are several well-known, heavily documented female pharaohs, like Hatshepsut. Her husband, the pharaoh, died, leaving an infant to inherit, so she became regent. After seven years, she proclaimed herself as pharaoh. During her reign, she renovated hundreds of temples, established trade relationships, maintained peace in Egypt, and brought widespread prosperity to the country.
In most cultures today, women either have or are fighting for equal rights. Among the rights that feminists have fought for is fairness for both sexes in the courts. Because of their efforts, women now have the ability to fully utilize the court system. Feminists have also fought for women’s place in most major religions to be expanded; in both Christianity and Judaism, women have been successfully fighting to be ordained and have other rights within the religious sphere. While a woman has not yet assumed the highest position in the government, record amounts of women are holding seats in Congress and other governmental positions. The woman of ancient Egypt is similar to the woman today: able to hold her own in a court, place of worship, and government.